Shehu Abdullahi: From World Cup snub to Nigeria stalwart
While Nigeria's Alex Iwobi stole the headlines as the Super Eagles clinched their place at the World Cup with a 1-0 victory over Zambia on Saturday, Abdullahi Shehu also deserves immense credit for establishing himself as a key figure in Gernot Rohr's side.
The Anorthosis Famagusta utility man made the CAF Best XI of Matchday 5 of World Cup qualifying, and has become accepted as the solution to one of Nigeria's long-term problems - the right-back spot.
However, the road to stardom hasn't been smooth sailing for the 24-year-old.
The two-time NPFL winner with Kano Pillars was given his first taste of international football by coach John Obuh in 2013, when the coach used the holding midfielder as a right-back to great effect at both the CAF U-20 and FIFA U-20 World Cup tournaments.
Shehu measured up to standard at both competitions, but with no imminent foreign deal in sight, he returned to begin preparations for a third season with Masu Gida.
On the eve of the 2014 CHAN tournament, the Super Eagles team were in dire need of reinforcement in midfield due to late withdrawals and injuries to key personnel, and Shehu was handed an impromptu invitation.
Once given an opportunity to replace the injured Ikenna Hilary in the opening group loss to Mali, there was no looking back for Shehu, who was entrusted with midfield duties alongside Rabiu Ali and Ugonna Uzochukwu for the CHAN Eagles as they won the bronze medal.
In recognition of his fine performances in South Africa, he was rewarded with an opportunity to model the Super Eagles 2014 World Cup jerseys together alongside Ejike Uzoenyi and Chigozie Agbim, equally earning a spot on the team for an international friendly against Mexico at the Georgia Dome.
While the duo of Uzoenyi and Agbim were his senior colleagues in the home-based Eagles setup and later secured a spot on the flight to Brazil.
The greenhorn was appreciative of the opportunity afforded him to model the national teams kits and fancied his chances of gate-crashing the World Cup party, even if those hopes were never realised.
"It is not easy to make the final list for the World Cup, but I will make sure I work hard, concentrate, remain fit and [give] my best to the team," an optimistic Shehu told Goal. "I'm happy being part of this era of Super Eagles as a home-based player."
Ultimately, Shehu didn't make the 30-man provisional cut for the 2014 showpiece, but was quick to move on shortly afterwards, signing for Qadsiya of Kuwait in a deal reportedly worth $480,000 to begin his professional career abroad.
A 2015 transfer to Uniao de Madeira in the Portuguese Primeira Liga preceded a maiden cap against the Democratic Republic of Congo, and he's been an ever-present in the squad since then. Initially, Shehu was used primarily off the bench during the opening matches of Rohr's tenure, but after Musa Muhammed and Kenneth Omeruo was discarded, he was given an opportunity as the first-choice right-back, and has taken it with both hands.
Clearly, he is well equipped for the challenges that come with being a top-level professional footballer, having started off at the bottom rung of the ladder.
From his humble beginnings on the dusty streets of Sokoto, to having a taste of life with the Super Eagles, Shehu has come a long way.
He may have missed out on the 2014 World Cup, but as the 2018 event approaches, he appears primed to make up for lost time.